Sexual abuse and the pressure to forgive

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People who are sexually abused are very often pressured to forgive their abusers. This idea that a person must forgive their abuser is especially prevalent amongst fundamentalist Christians.

If you are in any way burdened by the idea that you are not forgiving your abuser as deeply or completely as you should, please consider the six truths below.

1. You don’t have to forgive anybody. The idea that you are somehow morally obliged to forgive the person who sexually abused you is the worst kind of vapid, blame-shifting nonsense. It’s just people grossly misunderstanding and misusing the Bible. You’re the one who got hurt. You, and no on else, get to decide what your attitude is toward the person who hurt you. Anyone—be they family, friend, sibling, pastor, therapist … anyone—who in even the slightest way pressures you to forgive your abuser is at best ignorant, and at worst harboring their own terrible reason for desiring that your pain vaporize away into a warmly glowing mist of sunshine, unicorns, and happy Christians. For your sake, ignore them. You’ve got reality to deal with. And the reality is that you’ve been hurt. That means you get to heal when you want to, and how you want to.

2. You don’t have to forgive to heal. Never allow yourself to be pressured into feeling guilty or spiritually inadequate by the treacle that healing and forgiving are inseparable—that you can’t really heal until you’ve forgiven. That’s complete nonsense. Saying that you can’t be healed unless you’ve forgiven your abuser is like saying that a cut can’t be healed as long as visible scar tissue remains. And insisting that an abused person does forgive their abuser before they are fully healed from that abuse is like insisting that a person skip rope before their broken leg is fully mended. It can only make things worse.

Healing-wise, what the abuse victim can do is reach a point where they fully understand what happened to them; a point, that is, where their negative feelings about their abuser are neutralized by their comprehension and appreciation of how and why their abuser was rendered so dysfunctional that ultimately they were compelled to do the wrong they did. And for the victim that understanding renders essentially superfluous the whole idea of them forgiving their abuser; then “forgiving” has no applicable or relevant context. For them, then, what happened simply happened.

3. Abusers of children depend upon the feelings of guilt they induce in their victims to keep their victims silent. Sex abusers of children are doing evil. And if there’s one thing evil understands, it’s what its most effective weapons are. And when it comes to keeping his victims emotionally weak and suitably complicit, the child abuser knows that his chief weapon is the guilt that his sexual actions generate in his young victims.

Children yearn to please. They want their fathers, for instance, to love them. Moreover, every child innately and naturally trusts his or her father. A child being sexually abused by her father doesn’t at first know that she’s being sexually abused. She has no context for that. All she really knows is that her father is paying special and even loving attention to her. And as confused in the moment as she is about what her father is doing to her, part of what breaks through to her consciousness is that, on a purely physical level, some of it feels pretty good. And the moment avidly awaited by any child abuser is the moment in which the child he is molesting feels any physical pleasure at all. Because he knows that the moment his victim so much as responsively squirms, or in any way moves to encourage his touch, he has the victim he wants—the victim he needs if he is to not get caught. He knows that from that moment on the child can never claim–can never think–that she didn’t like it. That she didn’t want it. That she didn’t encourage it.

Now, inevitably, and in very short order, she will come to think of herself exactly as he desires that she does: as a worthless slut good for nothing but providing him sexual pleasure. And, just like that, he’s got her. Because now she won’t tell anyone what’s happening between the two of them, because now she’s certain to be too ashamed to.

Because now, in her heart of hearts, she believes that it’s her fault.

The abuser got the physical response that he knew perfectly well he would; and that inevitable response automatically becomes the perfect, self-obliterating weapon that his victim will never have any choice but to continuously turn upon herself. And, just like that, he’s secured for himself a quiet, pliant toy that he is free to abuse at will.

The real crime of sexual abuse isn’t physical. It’s psychological, emotional, spiritual. You make someone despise who they are sexually—which is at the very core of the identity of all of us—and you’ve created damage that can easily last for generations.

If you yourself have been the unhappy recipient of such a tragic legacy, the last thing on earth you need to worry about is forgiving your abuser. You have no obligation at all but to keep on telling yourself God’s greatest truth, which is that you are absolutely not the wickedly depraved person whom your abuser methodically and carefully tricked you into believing that you are. Your innocence was unnaturally destroyed, and you were left to build your identity and life upon the dreary remains of that destruction. That’s bad luck for you, yes. But what happened to you is not your fault. All of the blame is his, and his alone. And you do not have to spend the rest of your life dwelling like a criminal in the dark, dank hovel to which your abuser condemned you, and within which he depended upon you to remain. No. The light outside is calling you. And you are free to step out into it, the same as anyone else. And you absolutely do not need to forgive your abuser before doing so.

4. Asking for forgiveness doesn’t mean deserving it. Just because someone asks you to forgive them doesn’t mean you have to. If your abuser tells you that he feels bad about what he did to you, then: A) Whoopee for him; and B) That’s not your problem. It’s not your job to make better the life of the person who made your life hell. If your abuser feels bad about abusing you, then let him go off somewhere by himself and feel as bad about that as, God knows, he should. If by some miracle he has come to feel remorse equal to his offense, then let him do his level best to prove that to you. One of the first ways he can do that is by immediately making clear to you two things: that he doesn’t expect you to forgive him, and that he will absolutely honor your desire, should you express it, to completely and permanently remove himself from your life. If he doesn’t voluntarily do those two things, then you can be sure that his desire for you to forgive him is about serving his emotional needs, not yours. Screw that.

Never forget that abusers are typically superb at expressing sincere remorse for their actions and great affection for their victims. The reason they are so adept at this is because they’ve been practicing it for so long. They used you. And they know that makes you, at your core, their enemy. And sexual abusers know the wisdom of keeping their enemies close.

5. Forgiving your abuser does not necessitate letting them back into your life. Forgiving your abuser does not, in any way whatsoever, oblige you to have, or continue to have, a relationship with them. Period. Forgiving a snake for biting you doesn’t mean that you have to again pick up that snake again. You’re more than free to let it slither away.

6. Forgiveness isn’t a constant state. Being sexually abused means being wounded at every level of your being. Sometimes you will feel as if you’ve completely healed from the trauma of your abuse—which is likely to then bring washing over you great waves of forgiveness and even compassion for your abuser. But later—could be a day, week, or years later—you may find a wave of an altogether different sort pulling you back out to sea, where you will again find yourself feeling lost and sinking. That whole back-and-forth, up-then-down dynamic is an entirely natural part of the whole process of healing from abuse. Victims of abuse commonly get trapped into believing that because they felt healed and benevolent on Tuesday, there’s something wrong with them if on Friday they’re back to feeling wounded and bitter. But there’s nothing at all wrong or strange about that kind of vacillation. Again, it’s just part of the process. It’s okay. Understanding, accepting, and even anticipating that kind of fluctuation in your feelings can leave you, even on your worst days, so close to the shore that, once you find yourself adrift in the ocean, you can actually relax, take a deep breath, and enjoy the swim back in.

Remember: Healing is your journey. It’s your process. It’s your right—and it must be done according to your needs, your rhythms, your natural and organic intuitions about how to make yourself whole. Don’t ever let anyone, for any reason—religious or otherwise—co-opt your healing process away from you.

Whether or not you forgive your abuser has nothing to do with whether or not you heal from the abuse done to you. That you heal—however you heal—is all that matters.


If you were sexually abused, I cannot urge you strongly enough to buy, along with its workbook, The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. It will change your life. (The article above is not taken from this book; those ideas/recommendations are my own.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Bill

    John,

    Nicely written with compassion, but I think you are off on some points.

    I believe the idea of forgiveness should be part of the healing journey for everyone who has been hurt, but agree with you it should never be forced upon anyone – it is the journey of the individual who has been hurt and many times damaged physically, psychologically and emotional ways that may never be repairable. The act was unfortunately/horrendously thrust upon them without their consent – and healing can only happen in a time that is right for them – not dictated by anyone else. I also agree with the comment relating to forgiveness is not needing to allow someone else back into one’s life. Forgiveness does not necessitate trust and in my experience trust is often never restored – which is usually a good thing.

    A couple of closing points to consider:

    1.) without forgiveness what is being harbored in the individual – anger, resentment, bitterness….? Are these emotions that have been associated with healthy individuals – not if the anger, resentment or bitterness exists in an individual for an extended period of time.

    I think Nelson Mandela put it best:

    “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will
    kill your enemies.”

    2. ) Jesus himself did encourage – some might say directed – His followers to forgive. I think He states it pretty clearly – and also says why to do it. To your point He doesn’t say how soon after the hurt though this has to be accomplished.

    3.) Someone once said something like: ‘The first step in forgiveness is accepting someone did something really wrong to the individual….forgiveness is not letting the other person off without consequences, it’s not letting someone’s else’s actions keep me (the individual who was hurt) from moving on emotionally and psychologically, etc’.

    Just my thoughts.

    I ‘m pretty new to this site, but I really enjoy your posts, and also Benjamin Crowleys’s (also his book).

  • BarbaraR

    Hi Bill,

    I understand what you are saying – but I agree with John that forgiveness is not necessary in order to heal.

    When you said without forgiveness what is being harbored in the individual – anger, resentment, bitterness… speaking as a first-class grudge holder, sure, yes, those elements are there. But they are no longer front and center. I don’t think about that stuff every day or every week. If those things fester and interfere with normal life, that’s one thing; it’s harmful to the person and possibly to those around them to obsess to the nth degree over the past.

    But I am not convinced that total forgiveness is possible for most people, since the damage is already done and the scars remain. Which is a useful thing, since (presumably) that is what keeps us from making the same mistakes over and over. Someone said that forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past, and that works for me.

  • http://kareneeart.com/ Karen Renee

    “forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past” – This!

    To me, forgiveness is no longer hoping for restoration or waiting around for the abuser to admit their wrong or say sorry.

    “Forgiving” my ex finally allowed me to leave the relationship, by the process below:

    1) Letting go of the “idea” of an ideal relationship with him.
    2) Accepting the reality that it was abuse, and that I had already been robbed of the healthy relationship I wanted.
    3) Recognizing I didn’t deserve that treatment, and that my value doesn’t need to be invested into that relationship.
    4) Realizing his idea of love is deeply skewed and destructive, and that I don’t owe him anything.
    5) Letting go of the entire relationship (including expecting anything from him) and staying out of his reach.
    6) I now am investing myself in my own healing and other, healthy relationships.
    7) Dealing with the deep trauma of those wounds will likely take the rest of my life. At least now I’ve set guards against him so he can’t damage me further.

    None of that process has anything to do with him, aside from cutting ties to him.

    I understand the definition of forgiveness that this article is dealing with. I finally realized that the general understanding of forgiveness, especially in the Church, is seriously messed up, and that’s what led to the process above. I based a lot of it on the financial definition of forgiveness.

  • Bill

    Hey Barb,

    Thanks for the response. I understand your point, and I get it, since people I know (including myself) have the hurt present itself over and over after we think we’ve forgiven. The understanding I had was just to forgive again…but perhaps your perspective (and John’s) is the correct one – you never really forgive fully, you just don’t let it control your life.

    What do you do with Jesus comments on forgiveness “As you forgive so you will be forgiven”, and God the Father will forgive us as much as we forgive others? I guess in reality it may come down to semantics.

    Thanks again for the response and insight. It helps.

    Bill

  • Barb

    Thanks for this, John. I think that Jesus is pretty clear that we are to forgive each other, but sexual abuse is an unusual case. Forgiveness is a word we toss around without really thinking about what it means. It has many facets–letting go of bitterness and hate, making things right with a friend who has given you a minor insult, moving on after a big fight with your spouse.

    Forgiveness of an abuser who has wounded you physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually and in every other possible way is a far more complex and gritty topic. The traditional meaning of forgiveness–“that’s OK, don’t worry about it, let’s forget it and move on” –just doesn’t apply. Even saying the word “forgive” in the context of childhood sexual abuse puts a huge amount of pressure on the victim when she is just that–the victim, not the perpetrator.

    I think the other thing that has to be said here is that often when people say “victims need to forgive their abuser,” what they really want is for the whole thing to go away. I have no comment on the Duggar situation since I have no idea exactly what happened, but I do know that in my particular case, every single time someone gave me that you-have-to-forgive-your-abuser line, it was because they were worried about the perpetrator’s reputation and the public fallout of a scandal–not because they were truly concerned about my spiritual welfare. And that’s the reason I always get pissed when I hear someone say it.

  • lymis

    I’ve come to understand that my take on forgiveness is very much at odds with the way that a lot of people speak about it. They way I understand most people’s view of forgiveness, I agree very strongly with your writing.

    But it seems to me that a lot of people – on both sides of any situation – see forgiveness as saying some version of “That’s okay, what you did was no big deal, and you didn’t really hurt me and I know you didn’t mean it.”

    In the situations where that is true – where something was minor, unintentional, and based on some sort of misunderstanding, that’s a good approach to take.

    But it ignores all the times when the action WAS intentional, WAS a big deal, DID real and lasting harm, and is not excusable, even in hindsight or with time and perspective.

    In those situations, forgiveness seems to me more about letting go than about absolving the wrongdoer, and certainly not about letting them feel good about themselves or letting them back into your life to potentially hurt you again.

    If you step on a thorn, you pull the thorn out. You don’t pretend it never was there, and you certainly don’t go walking barefoot around the thornbushes again.

    People talk as though forgiveness is incompatible with things like cutting off all contact, pressing legal charges, or continuing to acknowledge the truth of what happened. I don’t get that at all. Forgiveness means letting the past be the past and not allowing the past to continue to create new harm – either to yourself or to the person who hurt you. It’s about not dwelling on it, not about not being realistic about it.

    That said, I still completely agree it doesn’t happen just because someone asks for it, and the inability to forgive is not a measure of being wrong with God.

    Possibly, consciously and deliberately nurturing feelings of anger and vengeance gets in the way of being at peace, and that may be a situation for someone to make other choices. But even then, it’s not anyone else’s place to tell someone when they ought to be “over” something – certainly not the person who harmed them. Someone outside our heads can’t tell when we’re holding on to something and when we’re still being harmed by it without making an effort to hold on to it.

  • BarbaraR

    This is so true.

  • dicentra

    “Possibly, consciously and deliberately nurturing feelings of anger and vengeance gets in the way of being at peace, and that may be a situation for someone to make other choices. But even then, it’s not anyone else’s place to tell someone when they ought to be “over” something – certainly not the person who harmed them. Someone outside our heads can’t tell when we’re holding on to something and when we’re still being harmed by it without making an effort to hold on to it.”

    Thanks for this. You said it very well.

  • Maura Hart

    for your commenters…..let’s wait on the decision to forgive until you are sexually assaulted as a child. that seems eminently fair to me.

  • charlesburchfield

    I was sexually assaulted as a child 50+ years ago. the memories of betrayal & abandonment have tainted my reality w fear. I can only trust ppl provisionally. I turned to booze & pills for comfort & to take the edge off of my anxiety. I went to AA for my substance abuse recovery & spiritual program. I found some answers there about forgiving.

  • Maura Hart

    ty for your story. i too have severe trust issues, luckily no substance abuse. i am i therapy again for the 5th time and it really has helped finally. i am not a believer since much of my abuse was also physical from catholic nuns so i have problems with aa “higher power”.

  • Lynne

    Excellent John! The best recommendations I’ve ever heard on this subject. Are they yours or were they taken from the book you cited at the end of your post?

  • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

    The ideas/advice in this piece are my original work (though perhaps I should make that clear; it never occurred to me anyone might think they were taken from the book. But … duh. Of course they might.) Thank you for your kind words.

  • Lynne

    I figured they were yours or you would have put the entire thing in quotation marks, but I wanted to be sure. Thanks!

  • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

    No, I’m glad you brought it up. It’s definitely become a thing, where bloggers just … cut-and-paste content/posts wholesale. Not good.

  • lymis

    I think another part of the whole problem is our tendency to speak as though these things are binaries.

    Something went wrong. Someone must be entirely at fault. Forgiving someone means saying that they weren’t at fault. By logical extension (from deeply flawed premises), forgiving someone else means taking the blame yourself.

    It doesn’t help that in sexual or sexual-adjacent situations, that’s often exactly the message that is sent: “Well, YOU must have done SOMETHING to cause it.” But even when that isn’t explicitly said, it’s still wired deeply into our approach to such things.

    We teach people that forgiveness means saying no harm was done or saying that the other person is faultless. By not teaching people how to acknowledge the harm and the fault and still let go of the ability of the past to continue to do new and ongoing harm, as a society, we cause more harm than good.

  • Godsnewine

    Choosing to forgive someone does not validate the harm or offense they did to one as it is simply a powerful way to find individual freedom from the hideous nature of the offense and offender(s). As a former victim of nearly 24 years and have been free and healed for 30 years, I know absolutely how forgiveness frees and gives people victory over the dark and enemies.

  • Bill

    John,

    You stated in item number 2, that “forgiveness isn’t necessary to heal”.

    What do you think IS necessary form someone to heal?

    Bill

    P.S. I’ll get the book and see is it has any additional insights. I have many close people in my life (including my spouse) who have had severe trauma including sexual abuse as children and during adulthood, The long process of healing that I’ve seen them go through has involved forgiveness. Not my idea – just where they had to go to get to where they needed to be – that’s pretty much why I am asking for your insights – it sounds as if you have discovered something new and different that may be more effective.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    Time, patience, comfort from others, silence, pouring your heart out, starting over, medication, walking away, getting furious, writing.

    Forgiveness is not necessarily a part of that equation. In fact it may never be part of the equation of an individual’s healing process. We are all so different, our experiences unique are well as our pain. Healing, instead of a formulated one size fits all sort of action done in a set time frame, is a vast smorgasbord of options, that we can choose from, returning repeatedly to the “dishes” that work, and avoiding the ones we’ve discovered didn’t/

  • Bill

    I am learning a lot.Thank you for your insight, and taking the time to respond. I always thought forgiveness had to be part of the equation – but I don;t believe I ever tried to push that on anyone. I see now, from your s an other comments I may have been – and like am wrong in that regard. I’ve got the audio version of the book John recommended and will listen to that as well.

  • Sharla Hulsey

    My objection to the way people call for victims of abuse to “forgive” is that it’s clear they don’t just mean “letting go of the burden of hurt I am carrying because of what my abuser did to me, oftentimes only for my own sake.” What they mean is “saying what happened to me is okay and allowing my abuser back into my life, perhaps to abuse me again.” If that’s what you mean by forgiveness, then go to hell.

  • Brianna LaPoint

    I came to realize that i have to forgive those that hurt me, not for their sake but for my own inner peace. However, forgiveness does not mean i must invite them back into my life to hurt me again! It just means i move on from the pain and suffering that they have caused me and hopefully I can get some healing. I was sexually abused by my family, and i realize that you cant choose your family and thats a crappy thing to have happen. However, that is a part of why i barely speak to my relatives, they will never know what they have done was wrong and some are not sorry.

  • Godsnewine

    Bunk!!!!! Forgiveness is not about validating a sin done unto you but rather it is about you receiving your freedom to move forward without that darkness hanging around you. I was abused and lived with the oppression for nearly 20 years until I learned the truth about forgiveness and I have so many testimonies of how it operates to propel me forward each and overtime I use the words “I choose to forgive”. Due to the unfortunate activities that attacked me in my younger years and my choosing to want to heal and be set free from that oppressive scene and people I was indeed set free and nothing else I attempted came close to helping become victorious over the enemies. I would love to hear testimonies from people who are truly healed from using other techniques mentioned in this article without forgiveness. Testimonies are powerful when attributed to God.

  • Gennifer Miller

    The Duggar girls need to learn this.

  • Tracy

    I think forgiveness is part of the healing process. It’s not something that is the first go-to in recovery, but is definitely needed along the way. There comes a point for a Christian, where we see that person who abused us as made also in the image of God. A very distorted image true, but he/ she is also a part of God’s plan and purposes. And i think its God who enables us to move on and forgive. I don’t think in our own strength we can do it ourselves. Corrie Ten boom is the perfect example of this. Forgiving her perpetrators was part of her amazing testimony. And then we have God, forgiving humanity in all it’s depravity and rejection of Him. I’d say it’s pretty central to the christian message myself.

  • RonnyTX

    One time sexually abused here and that when I was 16 years old. Not much,when I think on how some kids are sexually abused;but as I put it,one time is one time too many. Then mentally abused from 12 years old to 40 years old and that starting in and coming from the local church,that I grew up in. God allowed me to physically escape that church,when I was in my mid 20’s or so;but mentally I didn’t escape from that,till I was 40 years old. That’s when God brought me out of such. :-) What a great day that was! :-) Later,I found I could not harbor hate,anger and bitterness,at the ones who had abused me. For such as that,simply hurt me and it sure didn’t help me heal. And even today and for the last couple of days in particular,I have got sort of a knot in my stomach,when thinking about some past abuses.

    Will add this. Where is the place that a young person is most likely to get abused? Well,I would say right there in the local church.

  • charlesburchfield

    I suffer flashbacks on a daily basis. It makes me sick mentally. I call on the phone to a be put on a prayer chain & use it regularly as well as try to stay in constant contact w the lord. It helps me stay sane, sober & serene.

  • RonnyTX

    Ah my Charles,sorry you have that problem every day. :-( But I’m sure glad you have some helps for that.

  • http://example.com/ SwiperTheFox

    There’s a core, fundamental thing here. Forgiveness is a matter of religion, faith, and morality. The law is the law.

    If a loved one confesses to you that he or she is a murderer, a rapist, a terrorist, or whatever else, then you may very well find mercy for them in your heart, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have an inherent duty as an American (and not that in the NT it’s clearly stated in God’s own freaking word that Christians are to “render onto Ceaser what is Ceaser’s”) to have secular justice be done.

  • Linnea912

    Thanks for this, John. I’ve never been sexually abused, thank God, but I have been spiritually abused (by fundamentalists), and much of this is helpful to me, especially #6. The people who perpetrated the abuse are no longer in my life, and part of my healing has been to stay far away from anything that even smacks of fundamentalism.

  • carol

    Having been sexually abused for many years by a close family member, the horror of which I could never hope to articulate, I was diagnosed with PTSD about 10 years ago. Thanks to a loving and encouraging husband, I found an excellent psychologist, who specialized in trauma therapy. He gave me the tools I needed to work with the memories and the PTSD symptoms. I am very happy to say that abuse and PTSD no longer have power over me.
    I am grateful that my therapist never, not once, told me that I needed to forgive. However, I can truly say that I have forgiven my abuser, the one who haunted my memories for most of my life. I forgave, not for the sake or my abuser but for my own sake. I was tired of being bitter and angry.
    What I have learned through my own healing journey, is that forgiveness is not a feeling but an action. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting. I do not want to forget because the abuse was a part of my story. It has made me into the person I have become and given me compassion for others. Forgiveness does not mean we trust or love or have a relationship with our abuser. I hate everything about what he did to me. I would never allow him near one of my children and I have gone to great lengths to make sure other children do not become his victim. Forgiveness is a conscious decision that I must make over and over again. While I do not see my abuser often, there are times when I do and every time I have to forgive him again. Every time a memory is triggered, I make the decision, once again, to forgive. I think forgiveness is marked by absence……the absence of hatred, absence of all consuming thoughts of past offenses, absence of need for revenge, absence of need to strike out at life itself.
    Forgiveness is absolutely not necessary. My abuser did not deserve my forgiveness. He was a monster. There is no law that dictates forgiveness and quite frankly, it doesn’t even make sense to forgive something so horrific. Having said all that, I highly recommend forgiveness, not for the abuser but for us, the victims.
    Forgiveness is freedom.

  • de_la_Nae

    Forgiveness can be a wonderful thing, but so’s aspirin, until it’s used to poison you.